Wekiwa Springs: Land of Hope

by Kevin Wilson

In the 48 contiguous states… the amount of protected wilderness is approximately equal to the amount of pavement: about 2 percent of the total landmass is in each category… Wilderness is indeed an endangered geographical species. – -Roderick Nash

Henry David Thoreau, the father of American nature writing once proclaimed, “A town is saved not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it.” The woods and swamps, the wilderness where I feel a sense of place, is Wekiwa Springs State Park. Although just 13 miles as the crow flies from the Orlando metro area, Wekiwa is a world removed from the crowded theme park mecca to the southeast. It is one of the most biologically diverse parks in the entire state, boasting 42,000 acres and 19 distinct habitats – including flatwoods, sinkholes, baygall, hammock, sandhill, marshes, blackwater rivers, spring runs, and a second magnitude bubbling spring – the namesake of the park.

If you look up Wekiwa on Google Earth, you’ll see a postage stamp of green in the midst of a city of concrete, golf courses, and tract housing. It is one of the last outposts of wilderness in central Florida. Wekiwa stands nobly but precariously atop Orlando. If Thoreau was correct that “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Wekiwa may be the preservation of Orlando.

I am fortunate to work as a Park Ranger at Wekiwa, but it is a job not free of worries. The Park Service is in dire budgetary straights. Our Governor comes from that dastardly group who believe, as poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry might say, “that whatever is profitable is good.” The Governor would rather sell the parks to developers and turn them into KOA campgrounds than have them protected. As a result, Wekiwa and most other parks are starved for funding the majority of the year.

We Rangers patrol Wekiwa in dilapidated, gas guzzling Dodge trucks and scrape by on a shoestring budget, a budget that sometimes has us running dangerously low on such essentials as toilet paper, or, more importantly trash bags (some visitors like to leave their mark by disposing of diapers in the trunks of Sabal Palms or throwing beer bottles in the river). But we do our best to cheerfully preserve Wekiwa despite the budgetary setbacks, a wonderful but difficult task.

One day while engaged in the daily Ranger routine, driving one of our rickety Dodge trucks to the campground in the sandhill to do some maintenance work, myself and another Ranger saw one of our visitors pacing frantically. He was a birder who regularly walks the sandhill habitat searching for birds – eagles, swallow tailed kites, warblers, and hawks, the creatures that, as conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club John Muir poetically surmised, “must sing though the heavens fall.”

As we approached the man, I gazed out on the rolling expanse of sandhill and thought: it’s no wonder he always walks here. Florida sandhill is a sublime habitat, reminiscent of Thoreau’s description of where “Wildwood covers the virgin mould – and the same soil is good for men and for trees.” Sparsely populated Longleaf pines emerge straight, tall, and sturdy from a lush emerald green and tawny brown understory of wiregrass, wildflowers, bluejack, and turkey oak. It is home to a number of interesting and playful creatures: deer, gopher tortoises, lizards, mice, bobcats, and bears, among others.

As our vehicle crept closer and closer, the lone birder reminded me of a story from Florida nature writer Bill Bellville, a man who “In our technologically obsessed world…set out on foot in defiance of the quick and expedient.” The amateur ornithologist is a very kind man, always waving, usually grinning from ear to ear. Walking seems to do much for his peace of mind. But that familiar and disarming grin was replaced by a more somber look that day. As we stopped the truck to talk to him, he gravely declared that he just saw a Fox Squirrel, one of the parks most distinct and colorful creatures, flattened by a speeding car. My fellow Ranger looked at me and back at the man, we both knew this was a serious situation. We shut off the engine and heard the wind rustle the dark green needles of the longleaf pines. Then we heard the sound of leaves scattering about on the Forest floor, the sound of a lone struggle. We walked toward the dissonant noise.

The Sherman Fox Squirrel is an energetic little mammal, one of those charismatic fauna that visitors come to our park from all over the world to encounter. About two to three times the size of your average grey squirrel, they are a species of special concern – threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation.

As we drew nearer we could see the poor fellow before us had a black head, white nose, and dark tanned fur that covered the rest of his body to the tip of his long fluffy tail. He was alive but critically wounded; his hind legs and lower torso were completely crushed, flattened and immobile. His eyes seemed frightened and confused as he writhed on the ground. I thought at that moment that cars probably never factored into his evolutionary survival strategy.

I remained with the squirrel while the other Ranger took the truck back to his residence to grab his rifle; he knew what needed to be done without saying a word. I watched the squirrel struggle to climb the nearest pine tree, nervously clawing up four feet, descending two. He couldn’t make much progress without his hind legs, a sad spectacle.

The other Ranger came back with his .22. Unlike the young Aldo Leopold who in his seminal essay Fire on the Mountain, killed a wolf with “more excitement than accuracy,” this guy took a steady, well-aimed shot, and with a soft crack, the squirrel fell limp to the ground. I approached the little fellow. His body was limp, but his wheezing breath continued. His head craned for a look at his killers. I wanted the poor guy put out of his misery so I said the squirrel should be shot again. My request was obliged with buckshot to the head. The squirrel fought pitifully for life, but after about 30 seconds, the fire died in his eyes. Leopold lamented that as the wolf he shot died, a green fire extinguished in its eyes. Our fox squirrels eyes were not green but a deep brown, a brown that was forever extinguished that day from the natural order of Wekiwa.

I knew that the woods would just reclaim the squirrel’s body if I left him alone, but I couldn’t help the human need for closure. I braided a cross out of saw palmetto fronds, dug a small 8-inch deep hole, and buried the squirrel by a clump of wiregrass. My hands shook a bit as I set the cross at the head of the impromptu grave.

I am a park Ranger, as environmental anarchist activist and one time Park Ranger Edward Abbey once said: “it is my duty to protect, preserve, and defend all living things within the park boundaries.” Although I believe we upheld our duty, I could not help but think like Abbey that “all living things on earth are kindred.” I felt dejected that we were forced to extinguish a kindred spirit forever.

Muir said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” My hands continued to shake long after I buried that squirrel on the solitary ride back to the park shop for I knew that poor creature was hitched to me and everyone else in Florida. I feel more and more that this singular fact remains unknown or uncared about by far too many, especially those new to our state, attracted by the ponzi scheme of development, unbaptized by the savage heat, walled off from the wild in air-conditioned cars.

I relate this story because unfortunately the fox squirrel was one of many creatures killed far too often at Wekiwa. Another casualty of the hurried growth encroaching on our sacred land. As the population of Orlando continues to explode, we don’t seem to realize we are boxing our wildlife and ourselves into a corner, leaving few options of where to go. If we continue with unbridled development, it will mean more accidents, more dead bears and squirrels, more nitrates leaching into the once crystal-clear springs, more beer cans and cigarettes in our Wild and Scenic River (The Wekiwa is one of only two Wild and Scenic Rivers in the entire state of Florida).

But alas, there is an alternative: we can halt new development (unpalatable to most, but necessary in a crisis), give Wekiwa the breathing room and funding she and her creatures need to survive, control the maddening speed at which we drive, build, and tear through our natural resources. As Donella Meadows suggested, nay implored, in The Limits to Growth – control our numbers control our greed.

Thoreau provided a simple maxim: “To preserve wild animals implies generally the creation of a forest for them to dwell in or resort to. So it is with man.” Wekiwa is our forest of biologic wonder, and a “sanctum sanctorum” for our spirits. Central Floridians need Wekiwa as much as Wekiwa needs us. Wekiwa provides respite from the civilization that can sometimes choke our souls and contains the waters, trees, and animals that shaped our character as Americans and Floridians.

With our stewardship, Wekiwa will preserve us and all the wild creatures and plants we love for generations to come (especially fox squirrels!). But if we resign ourselves to our current course, we are destined for a dismal existence where tic-tac subdivisions, theme parks, and shopping malls replace the last virgin mould, the last refuge for our furry friends. We can’t let that happen; that is my plea for our endangered geographical species, my sense of place, and land of hope, Wekiwa.